CS Department Cuts Major Requirements to Meet Surging Demand

The computer science department has altered its major, reducing the requirements to a total of eight credits and imposing a limit of nine credits within the department – meaning that students are not allowed to take more than nine credits in the department, with a few possible exceptions.

The changes come as the department continues struggling to accommodate rising enrollments in its courses and major. They also come suddenly for some, with majors hearing about the changes only the week before classes started this semester.

While the limit, or cap, only applies to courses that are overenrolled, the department reports that the majority of its upper-level courses are already currently overenrolled, meaning that students who reach the cap will likely be unable to enroll in any further courses. The cap will begin in the spring 2019 semester. The computer science department had already jettisoned upper-level seminars from its offerings, a development the Phoenix reported on in February 2017. Meanwhile, the requirements for the minor are unchanged

Strain on the teaching and facility resources of the computer science department has mounted quickly. According to statistics available on Swarthmore’s Institution Research, Fact Book webpage, the share of degrees in computer science granted by the college has more than quintupled over the past eight years — from 3.1 percent in 2010 to 16.7 percent in 2018.

While lowering the requirements for the major will relieve some enrollment strain in the short term, some current majors worry that it will only encourage more people to pursue a major over time.

The higher student-to-faculty ratio in the department places greater impetus on students to connect with professors. CS major Amy Shmoys ’19 notes that students are not guaranteed attention in upper-level classes.

“It very much varies on how much you take the initiative to go to professors’ office hours . . . The problem is that that takes students being willing to go to office hours themselves and put that effort in, which shouldn’t be necessary,” Shmoys said.

Tai Warner ’19, another CS major, also noted his experience that individual attention in lab sections was suffering.

“What doesn’t quite meet a standard . . . would be the amount of time [the professors] get to spend with each individual in lab . . . If there’s more people [in a lab], they can only get to so many, or they can only get to each person once versus twice,” he said.

He also relayed an unconventional solution one professor found: using lab sections for smaller lectures with more individual attention and replacing one of the scheduled lectures with a lab.

“[The professor] totally rearranged the schedule . . . The labs, which are split up, were basically . . . classes with half as many people in them — and that was like seminar time. And then [one] lecture time was lecture, and the other lecture was lab. So everything was totally shuffled. And that’s an obvious consequence of the over-enrollment problems that the department is facing.”

He also said that such a solution was impermanent and set a poor precedent for how to cope with expanding enrollment.

“I guess in my case I feel like it worked. But . . . it would [not be] ideal to have a department where that became more and more the norm — and where, due to over-enrollment, professors had to think of clever ways to jam all the material into class . . . It’s definitely a bad direction to head.”

Seeing what direction the department is taking, even a couple of semesters in advance, can be nearly impossible. Asked if he felt able to see far enough into the future to plan which computer science courses to take, Warner laughed:

“No, I don’t.” Although he conceded that “the [computer science department] wants to [plan its course offerings] semesters in advance — they just can’t [see that far ahead].”

This lack of vision into the future coupled with the need for extensive lotteries means that a student’s path through the computer science major can be out of their hands.  

“[Computer science] is a very vast field. There’s a lot of different areas that . . . have different skills, . . . different interests,” Shmoys said. “The lottery . . . can sometimes determine what path you take and what you’re going to do . . . You don’t have an ability to plan what you’re going to take.”

Another consequence of the department’s expansion has been the frequent use of visiting professors. While they wished faculty resources were not stretched as thinly, both Shmoys and Warner spoke glowingly of their experiences in classes taught by visiting professors.

“It brings in outside expertise that the core of the department doesn’t have . . . It’s a good ‘liberal arts’ computer science department,” Warner said.

Although students feel positive about their experiences with visiting professors, they wish the department would go further.

“I think, absolutely, that the CS department is in need of more tenure-track lines” said Shmoys. “I wish they had the resources to support it.”

Professor Richard Wicentowski, who serves as chair of the department, did not respond to requests for an interview.

Featured image courtesy of Nara Enkh

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